If you have visited Twitter or strayed into Facebook anytime recently you would have noticed what seems to have become a rallying cry for women all over the globe: the words “me too”. Suggestive messages from senior colleagues; unwelcome gropes, brushes and kisses; that deceptively harmless-sounding practice of eve-teasing; forced penetrative sex are all bound together by that common hash-tag #MeToo, exposing the scale of sexual assault in the world today.
The movement really kicked off on October 15 when, in response to further allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein (he was accused of sexual misconduct), actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the following note: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” she said.
A trending topic
In less that 24 hours, #MeToo became one of largest trending topics on Twitter with over half a million tweets and a large number of shares on Facebook too. From celebrities like Lady Gaga, Patricia Arquette and Debra Messing to millions of ordinary women, the movement has gone viral. “Unlike many meme-type awareness-raising efforts, I felt #MeToo broke through in a new way,” believes feminist writer, Sharanya Manivannan. According to her, it provided space for people to be vulnerable about experiences across a spectrum, without having to be specific. “The sheer cascade of the hashtag filling one’s social media feed demanded attention. And hopefully introspection,” she says.
When the whole #MeToo hash-tag first began floating around social media, Chrishelle David admits to feeling rather sceptical about it. “I am a bit wary of Facebook trends since they rarely serve a real purpose,” says David. But as she scrolled through her social media feeds, reading more and more stories and anecdotes posted by friends, she began to realize how similar (and familiar) they really were. “It made sense to say yes. It is truly something else to feel that you are not alone and that you have others who have also dealt with something like this,” says David, a child sexual abuse survivor, adding, “The thing is incidents like this beget a weird, sick silence. That feeling of being heard, it is one tiny step towards healing,” she says.
Men listen in
“It is important for men to engage in these conversations. Times like these force them to,”says David. To be sure, some of the comments that have come from men have been faintly disparaging. Take Bengaluru-based Girish Kenkere, whose Facebook status currently reads, "If the number of #metoo posts are really true, then our traffic problem is solved. 90% of the men travelling to work at this very moment will be behind bars tomorrow or technically should be behind bars. We need no infrastructure projects with the exception of jails which can hold millions and millions of men."
Most others seem to have resorted to a somewhat uncomfortable silence. “Yes, many men won’t comment but they have noticed it,” believes Mumbai-based HR Professional, Trevor Mark Fernandes who calls the movement a “collective catharsis”.
Acknowledging that it happens and breaking the silence is the first step towards realisation, says Fernandes, admitting that the trend left him terribly shaken. It was not the immensity of the movement so much as the fact that many of the women who had commented were ones he knew on a personal level, women he interacted with on an everyday basis.
“Of course these things happen every day but you tend to be indifferent because it happens to someone else. This shook me out of my reverie,” he says.
Going beyond gender
Though the movement started off as a women-centric movement, it grew to include queer and cis-male experiences. Take the case of Sudeep Swaroop, whose Facebook status currently reads, “You’d be surprised to find how desperate a servant maid and a neighbour can get. Young boys are not safe too,” says the Bengaluru-based music director who was sexually abused as a child.
The sense of community that the movement fostered, helped him talk about these things, things that he has repressed for so long. As he saw more and more such stories fill up his time lines, he realised that it was important that he spoke too. “A child is a child, irrespective of gender. It is surprising how evil lurks everywhere in a society,” he says.
Additionally, as writer and gay rights activist Rōmal Lāisram says, “Ït validates what we have been through.” Lāisram, like Swaroop, decided to share own stories of abuse. From assault at the hands of his uncle to a friend who forced himself on him, an abusive ex-lover and a former boss he says that, “as a gay man I have been abused at several levels. I have always blamed myself and tried to suppress the memories,” he says.
Until he saw the number of Facebook statuses being updated that night. “When you realise that it happens to people around you, everything changes,” says Lāisram. And though, he agrees that there is a possibility that a movement on social media will not change the patterns of abuse in this country, “it gave us the courage to put it out there,” he says.